I’m fascinated with rituals, defined here as the actions we do over and over to reinforce meaning. Some workplace rituals are pretty straightforward: inductions, celebrations, retirements are only a few of the more familiar. (Although, in trying to find a graphic for this post – a search under “workplace rituals” offered all these photos of guys shaving…really. ) Though we may roll our eyes at what feels like a waste of our precious time in a stressed and busy day, I’m curious… what would it be like to work in a company without meaningful rituals? What would be missing? Plenty, as it turns out.
I’m on the board of a branch of an international arts-based non-profit. We get together to create consistent, organized public events. There is a structure and a sequence to the actions needed in producing these events, so the ritual in how things get done is very clear. It’s like baking, right? The ingredients and the process is predictable and reinforced over time. You can vary the recipe, improve it even, but if you vary it too much….. it’s a different animal altogether.
In this group however, I am keenly aware of the absence of interpersonal rituals that make people feel part of the effort. It’s rather ad hoc; people do things that they are used to doing and everyone rallies when problems come up, and then…. it all comes together. So the product gets produced, but there are no rituals for anything having to do with group cohesion. There are, for instance, no established protocols for welcoming people into the group and/or assisting them in finding ways to be helpful. Even members with prestigious titles or who represent valued partnerships do not necessarily get introduced or welcomed. No one is acknowledged for doing good work or making a special effort in specific areas, and the “post mortem” after each event is largely focused on what went wrong and what needs fixing for next time.
If this organization were its own planet – stay with me here – the landscape would be rather bleak, murky, the available resources not immediately obvious. The “Natives” would not express much curiosity or interest in someone from outside their known world, and it would be up to the visitor to actively observe any clues; language, behaviors, appearance etc. for how one becomes part of this group. Kind of what Seth Godin might describe as Planet “Inertia”….
If this organization were a for profit entity, how would this absence of ritual effect the working culture? How would it impact morale, retention…. the bottom line?
Research done by Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy on the impact of ritualistic culture on the profitability of nearly 80 companies determined that the highest performers had in common one clear factor: all of them applied intentional rituals to reinforce a desired company culture.
Paolo Guenzi, author of “Leading Teams – Tools and Techniques for Successful Team Leadership from the Sports World” and Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D author of: Nine Things Successful People Do Differently cite four general benefits of workplace ritual.
Stimulates Emotions: Reduces Anxiety: Heading into a nerve-wracking session with a client, making a pitch, asking for a raise, you can help yourself by doing one of Amy Cuddy’s Power Stances, and your team can get galvanized to clinch that deal by creating a ritual like a “group shake” everyone shakes themselves all over while shouting “Shit!” at the top of their lungs. The resulting laughter stimulates breathing and better breathing is good for the brain.
Helps us Focus: Mindfulness practices are especially prevalent in asian cultures, as well as multiple religious traditions around the world, because they prove highly effective in boosting individual productivity and decreasing interpersonal stress.
Creates Shared Identity: Inter-company sports competitions are particularly effective in getting people to bond quickly as a team. An extreme example? Denmark’s Grundfos Olympics, engaging 1,000 employees in 55 countries. Many of the foreign participants are welcomed into employee’s homes, further cementing employee relationships across the globe.
Reinforces Desired Behaviors: Germany’s Bosch Automotive wanted to spur more innovation and risk taking in their Key Account Managers. But in a largely hierarchical culture, many of the KAMs were notably reticent to speak up much in meetings. In order to engage their input, Bosch put together a color card ritual: saying nothing in a meeting gains a KAM a yellow card, if the same thing happens the next time, s/he is issued a red card and not invited to the next meeting. The message was strongly reinforced: “Don’t come to the meeting unless you are willing to speak up.” Over time, this ritual stimulated input from some of the most reticent KAMs, who often had the most valuable ideas to contribute.
Here’s another take on ritual: management guru Marvin Bower commented on the ritualistic “style” of working companies that he described as “the way we do things around here” . I knew instinctively what he was talking about, from what I know of theatre performance as “Style”. The world of the play gets reinforced through specific behaviors, clothing, pace, and communication patterns. A theatre company worth the price of admission would spend considerable time determining and reinforcing the stylistic rituals of the world of a particular play. Just as that particular non-profit board would benefit from defining the elements of our own group “style” and, even more importantly, how to graciously communicate it to prospective members.
I like this topic. And apparently, there are at least seven different Business Rituals to explore…which I plan to do over the next seven posts. I’d love to hear about your take on rituals and how you utilize them in your working world.
Lastly, if your team or group is in need of an insightful way to bring ritual, deeper engagement, trust and creativity to the table…. check out Shift/POV!